Romanticism in Painting: Characteristics

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  • 0:00 Characterizing Art
  • 0:28 Romanticism: Definition
  • 1:18 Themes: Nature
  • 1:51 Themes: Native Cultures
  • 2:35 Themes: Ruins
  • 3:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

I have worked in higher education since 2008 when I began teaching in remedial ed and teach classes in Humanities, Philosophy, and Sociology. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in Philosophy with a minor in Theater and a Masters Degree in Humanities.

Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While romanticism in painting is not easy to define, common characteristics and themes can provide us with some clues.

Characterizing Art

What makes a painting romantic? A picture of flowers and chocolates? Maybe a heart? Or a passionate couple kissing? While these images may be the first that come to mind, Romantic paintings often include pictures of landscapes, indigenous peoples, or overgrown ruins. In this lesson, we'll look at some key features of Romantic paintings.

Romanticism: Definition

Romanticism was a late 18th-century/early 19th-century art movement defined by its rejection of the popular idea that nature could be known, controlled, and mastered. Other movements in art history, like the Rococo or Baroque movements, were defined by internal characteristics like their adherence to Greek and Roman aesthetics.

As an art movement, Romanticism was more difficult to pin down because, while the Romantics disagreed that humanity should dominate nature, they also disagreed in terms of a substitute for that belief. Few of the major figures in the movement defined themselves as Romantics. However, despite their lack of central principles or ideals and use of a wide variety of techniques and subjects, there are some characteristics common to Romantic paintings.

Themes: Nature

The Romantics believed that applied science had failed to respect the power and mystery of nature and had ravished its majesty. As such, one recurrent theme in Romanticism was the worship of nature as divine. In the seascape painting, Calais Pier by JMW Turner, the ships, are overshadowed by the ominous sky and swirling waves.

Calais Pier by JMW Turner
The Slave Ship by JMW Turner

Turner's focus on the power of nature is clear. The water and atmosphere have more detail than the sailors and ships.

Themes: Native Cultures

Painters associated with the Romanticism movement were inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's description of ''The Noble Savage.'' They tried to capture indigenous and tribal cultures living in harmony with nature and often depicted their subjects in bold and striking poses.

This fascination with native cultures sent the message that civilization had gone astray and there was a purer and better way to live in harmony rather than at odds with the natural world. In this painting by Luis Monroy, called The Last Moments of Atala, note how noble the Native American's pose is, and how Monroy depicts him in such a dramatic stance.

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